Democrats Are Focusing on the Wrong Issues


A political party has a problem when voters think they have the wrong answers to their most important questions. She has a bigger problem when voters think she’s not even focused on those issues. The Democrats have put themselves in that position, and it could cost them dearly in next month’s election.

A new poll by the Harvard Center for American Political Studies shows voters rank inflation, the economy and jobs, and immigration as the top three issues. They also think they are the top issues for Republican leaders. They see the Democratic leaders most concerned with completely different issues: January 6th, women’s rights and climate change.

Gallup uses a different method to arrive at a similar conclusion. It asks voters which party they trust the most on the issue they feel is most pressing. Republicans have an 11-point lead on this issue, the widest advantage they’ve had since 1946.

Voters are not wrong in considering inflation a low-priority issue for Democrats. Their approach to the issue was opportunistic and arbitrary: first they downplayed it as temporary, then they blamed Vladimir Putin, then they repackaged their existing agenda to fight it, and then they claimed a drop in the monthly inflation rating. Now they are warning that if Republicans take control of Congress, they will make inflation worse.

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President Joe Biden’s latest economic message is that the economy is “fucking strong.” Americans disagree. A poll by the Associated Press and the University of Chicago found that more than three-quarters of Americans think “poor” better describes the economy than “good.” Again, the polls have a factual basis. On average, paychecks have not kept pace with prices.

If Biden finds the current high-inflation economy commendable, voters might wonder if he prioritizes stabilizing prices as he sometimes says. Worse, voters may wonder if his perception of conditions in the country is skewed. The Biden administration has often seemed more attentive to the words people use — to deny a “border crisis,” to argue about the technical definition of “recession” — than to the underlying phenomena they describe.

In the past, voters have had little patience for parties that seemed to ignore reality, whether it be George W. Bush-era Republicans who refused to admit the Iraq war was going badly, or Barack Obama-era Democrats who did so acted as if the economy had been fixed after they issued stimulus.

Instead of trying to reduce the Republicans’ economic advantage, Democrats have tried to focus the campaign on other issues, most notably abortion. But the issue seems to be fading as a voter concern. In July, immediately after the Supreme Court’s term ended with the dismissal of the Roe v. Wade ended, Gallup found that 8% of Americans considered this the key issue facing the country. It has dropped to 4%. It lags far behind inflation, the top issue for 17%, and the economy in general, voted for by another 12%.

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Some Democrats are beginning to wonder if their party has overemphasized the issue. James Carville, the longtime Democratic strategist, said recently: “A lot of these advisers think if we just do abortion ads, that’s going to win for us. I don’t think so.” But perhaps there is more at work here than strategy. The party really cares more about access to abortion than inflation. Perhaps it deserves credit for pretending little else.

Parties do not only exist to implement the wishes of the public. Nobody would then become a party activist. The Democratic coalition has goals that are not shared by the public, just like the Republican coalition. But politics demands a certain degree of balance. This government and the previous one are unusual in the degree that they have placed the administration of their coalitions above any rational assessment of the country’s most pressing needs.

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The two big party wins of the past two years for the Democrats, the American Rescue Plan and the Inflation Reduction Act, were a grab bag of the desires of their activist groups. The first was an anti-Covid effort enacted just weeks after a major bipartisan initiative had already become law, at a time when the economy was growing rapidly with low inflation. The second, while having components that were individually defensible, had no general justification other than to bring the party a political victory.

If the Democrats have a disastrous election, it will be in large part because they have ignored the most democratic of political maxims: the foot knows best where the shoe pinches.

More from the Bloomberg Opinion:

• Democrats try to persuade while Republicans try to mobilize: Julianna Goldman

• Democrats advance just in time for midterms: Matthew Yglesias

• A crushing defeat in November would help Democrats: Clive Crook

This column does not necessarily represent the opinion of the editors or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a columnist for the Bloomberg Opinion. He is Editor of the National Review and Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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